Arts: Buried treasures from OSU's Hale Black Cultural Center

Peter Tonguette
Director of the Hale Cultural Center, Larry Williamson Jr., with “In Unity There is Strength” by Okechukwu Odita.

On the campus of Ohio State University, the Frank W. Hale Jr. Black Cultural Center is hardly a hidden gem. Occupying the historic building once called Enarson Hall, the center teems with cultural and academic offerings, and its Thanksgiving dinner draws between 1,400 and 1,800 guests annually.

“We facilitate the experience of all students, but specifically African-American students,” says Hale Center director Larry Williamson Jr., who seeks an inviting, inclusive atmosphere. “We're the only building on campus that welcomes you into our building,” he says. “When you come into the Hale Center during the academic year, as soon as you walk into the building, you will hear somebody say, ‘Welcome to the Hale Center.'”

Yet, in recent years, a major part of the center's early mission has faded from view: its collection of works by African-American artists. Since its relocation from Bradford Commons to Enarson Hall in 2013, the center's exhibition opportunities have diminished. “When we moved here, not only did the Hale Black Cultural Center move here, but [so did] the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, in which we are under,” Williamson says. “But as we pulled us all together, the Hale Center lost some space,” including gallery space.

This month, a new exhibit will shine a spotlight on the center's buried treasures. In partnership with the OSU Arts Initiative, Start at Home: Art from the Frank W. Hale Jr. Black Cultural Center Collection (running Aug. 22–Nov. 4) presents 240 pieces plucked from an archive of about 600. Artists with works in the show include Queen Brooks, Kojo Kamau and Aminah Robinson—all of whom have local ties (as do many other artists in the show).

“It was imperative that we share these works of art with the Columbus community and the state of Ohio,” says Arts Initiative executive director Valarie Williams. “It's time for people to revisit these works. Many of them have not been seen in over two or three decades.”

To demonstrate the depth of the center's collection, the exhibit will span venues throughout Columbus, including the OSU Urban Arts Space, King Arts Complex and Global Gallery. Several spots on the OSU campus, including the Thompson Library, also will display works.

“That's to show the expansiveness of what we had and what we'd been doing since Oct. 11, 1989,” Williamson says, referring to the date the Hale Center opened its doors.

The center is named in honor of the late Frank W. Hale Jr. (1927–2011), whose positions at OSU included vice provost for the Office of Minority Affairs. “Under Dr. Hale's leadership, Ohio State University became the No. 1 producer of black Ph.D.s in the country,” Williamson says. “He went to predominantly black colleges and brought their top-five scholars to Ohio State University, and 80 percent of them got Ph.D.s or master's degrees.”

Also a proponent of the power of art, Hale encouraged Williamson to seek donations from artists. “We went out there and worked with the artists and wrote them letters,” Williamson says. “In abundance, these artists came out and supported Dr. Hale and put their artwork there, and our collection has been exceptional.”

For example, Samella Lewis—an artist specializing in prints who received advanced degrees from OSU—donated 36 “museum-quality” pieces, Williamson says. Other contributors include Benjamin Crumpler, Larry Collins and Eugene Grigsby.

In time, the center burnished its reputation. When the Association for Black Culture Centers receives a question about art, Williamson says, they know where to turn: “They say, ‘Well, call the Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center. They have the ideal collection.'”

Represented in the exhibit are a multitude of media, including painting, photography, glass and ceramic, and an equal variety of subject matter. “What I love about this is the works are so diverse,” says Lyn Logan-Grimes, cultural arts director at the King Arts Complex.

Behind many artists are stories, including that of Ralph Bell. Because he was disabled, Bell used a hat apparatus instead of his hands to create striking paintings. “He's not of the magnitude of an Elijah Pierce ... or a William Hawkins, but he's a folk artist,” Williamson says. “Ralph Bell was considered to be mentally challenged until somebody gave him the opportunity to paint, and they were like, ‘There's a brilliance in this man.'”

Williamson encourages visitors to experience the exhibit in each of its venues. “It's not an exhibit that's only up for a week or two, or a month,” he says. “We feel it's something unique that people can go across to and return and bring their friends to.”